A short post for Friday

This is the first time I’ve ever had my name on a poster. I gave a presentation on “American Architecture” – actually, just Los Angeles buildings. The actual title of my presentation was “crazy L.A.”

It’s been an interesting evening. I watched the film Milk, with an amazing performance by Sean Penn. Then, I got locked out of my apartment when the key broke in the lock. I sought refuge in the apartment of two other teachers, who called another teacher, who then called a locksmith, in Chinese. I’m now obviously back in the apartment, or else I wouldn’t be blogging.

I’m also sick. It’s the allergy time of year, and it’s getting worse instead of better. Thank goodness for books, DVDs, and YouTube. And bed. I’ve watched an endless procession of old British TV programs – Fawlty Towers, The Avengers, and such.

Chengdu’s “blue zones”

 blue / blue
Am I blue

Am I blue

Ain’t these tears in these eyes telling you

How can you ask me am I blue

Why, wouldn’t you be too….



Blue alley, lone walker, and dog

I’d long been attracted by flashes of electric-sky-blue that I glimpsed randomly on my travels through Chengdu. I thought at first the bright color was just an anomaly, a desire to liven up a city that often looks uniformly gray, except when the sun chooses to peek from behind the clouds. As I’ve said before, I can be a little slow sometimes, and I only recently realized that Chengdu’s “blue zones” – my own term – were actually neighborhoods scheduled for demolition.


Blue alley

Blue is a calming color, and when I’m in a “blue” mood, a trip down a narrow street between walls covered in this vivid, rather startling color can soothe the savage soul. Recently, I’ve started to make bicycle excursions into these zones, camera in hand. Behind many of the blue walls are already-vacant lots, awaiting redevelopment. There’s also a vibrant sense of life in these areas, as if the color enhances people’s moods as they work, play cards, eat, drink tea, or scratch designs in the blue-painted plaster, which flakes off like fairy dust.

Blue is also the color of Chengdu’s public service sector: signs, street workers’ uniforms, traffic cones, lane dividers in major streets. Still, I have to give credit to whatever city bureaucrat decided on this particular powdery, glowing shade of paint to designate condemned areas. The color is at once shockingly cheerful, and a constant reminder to local residents that their stay there may be limited. I guess that makes it an anomaly after all, especially since, in China, the color blue signifies immortality.





The Discovery Channel has a show called Mythbusters. The show’s researchers test the validity, in an entertaining way, of such “urban myths” as: If a dog sees a fire hydrant, it will always pee on it; or Cockroaches are the only life form that will survive the nuclear holocaust.

My insatiable curiosity (and way too much time on my hands) has led me recently to explore the meaning behind some often-used English sayings that refer to China, including:

“Dig a hole to China”
“A slow boat to China”
“Not for all the tea in China” 



 Dig a hole to China  

 Here’s one myth that I can almost guarantee you will never see on Mythbusters, simply because it’s physically impossible to do, and can be “busted” using a little geographical knowledge. It goes like this: If you dig a hole from your American back yard all the way through the earth [including the hot, molten center], you will end up in China. 

Thanks to a website like http://www.ubasics.com/dighole/, you can now choose a starting point, and find out where the opposite point on the other side of the earth is located. In this diagram, I put the magic arrow in my hometown of  St. Joseph, Missouri, almost in the geographic center of the U.S.: 




As you can see, my hole emerged not in China, but in the Indian Ocean somewhere to the left of Australia. Not only did I save myself from being burned in the earth’s core, but I saved our back yard from getting flooded in the process. 

Since turnabout is fair play, I next put the arrow on Chengdu, Sichuan, China, and – like magic! – ended up off the coast of Chile in South America. 




I happened to mention this myth in one of my classes, while talking about culture shock and stereotypes. Out of curiosity, I asked my students if they’d been told a similar story about digging a hole to the U.S. Their reply:  yes, of course. 

Now, you have to give me LOTS of credit for finding the following cartoon images for you. In the back of my mind was a vague memory of  a Warner Brothers cartoon featuring Tweety and Sylvester upside-down in China, where Tweety Bird wore a Chinese hat, had slanted eyes, and spoke in a “Chinese” accent. 




After endless internet searching I finally found that the 1957 Merrie Melodies cartoon was called Tweety and the Beanstalk.  At the end, Sylvester chops down the beanstalk to save himself from the evil Giant, who then falls on top of him with such force that Sylvester is knocked all the way to China (upside down, of course). 




There he meets “Chinese” Tweety, sitting on a branch, who says “Oh, I tawt I taw dishonorable puddy tat.” 




What better example of cultural stereotypes could you ask for? You can watch the complete cartoon online here:



One more note: places at opposite ends of the earth are called antipodes (“anti” opposed and “pous” or “pod” foot, as in podiatrist). In other words, the opposite side of the world from where I’m standing is the antipodal point of that spot. 

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet. 

– Rudyard Kipling, Barrack-room ballads, 1892 



A slow boat to China 

Well there’s no verse to this song
‘Cause I don’t want to wait a moment too long
To say that I’d love to get you on a slow boat to China
All to myself alone
To get you to keep you in my arms evermore
Leave all your lovers weeping on the far-away shore
Well out on the briny with a moon big and shiny
Melting your heart of stone
Well I’d love to get you on a slow boat to China
All to myself alone
I’d like to get you on a slow boat to China,
All to myself alone
A twist in the rudder, and a rip in the sail.
Drifting and dreaming, throw the compass over the rail!
Out on the ocean far from all the commotion
Melting your heart of stone,
Well I’d love to get you on a slow boat to China
All to myself alone. 

(I’d Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China is a popular song by Frank Loesser, published in 1947. [This version: Kay Kyser & his Orchestra, Harry Babbit & Gloria Wood, vocalists] 

Where did he get the phrase? His daughter, Susan Loesser, author of a biography of her father, A Most Remarkable Fella (1993), writes: 

“I’d like to get you on a slow boat to China” was a well-known phrase among poker players, referring to a person who lost steadily and handsomely. My father turned it into a romantic song, placing the title in the mainstream of catch-phrases in 1947. 

The idea, of course, was that traveling by boat to China was about as long and slow a trip as one could imagine.

I can vouch for this personally: before I left Los Angeles, I shipped some boxes of books to myself in Chengdu by the least expensive method: slow boat to China. True to the saying, the boxes took about 6 weeks to reach their destination. 


Not for all the tea in China 

Not for all the tea in China means not for all the money in the world. 

“Not for all the tea in China!” is an expression many us have known since childhood. First used in Australia in the 1890s, this exclamation refers to the obscene amount of money it would take to entice the speaker to do something he or she would never do. The idiom demonstrates that China, being the birthplace of tea, maintains primacy of association with tea production. It also recalls that tea was initially a rich person’s drink in Europe. When the East India Tea Company first brought tea to Holland, it cost $100 per pound. Similarly, in England, tea gardens—lavish outdoor events featuring fancy flowers, food, and tea, accompanied by fireworks and gambling—gave tea drinking its exotic cachet. Tea and money were inextricably linked.


teahouse Not all the tea, but enough to enjoy a rare sunny afternoon in Chengdu at a riverside tea house.



1. spurred or moved by a strong feeling, madness, or a supernatural power (often followed by by, of, or with): The army fought as if possessed. The village believed her to be possessed of the devil.

2. self-possessed; poised

I’m possessed by all kinds of things, notably the crazy idea that I should spend Sunday planning the lesson for my six upcoming classes. Every Sunday is the same: I procrastinate, get sidetracked, and finally resist this sensible activity like a kicking and screaming child. Part of this can be understood: in my case, a lot of teaching is intuitive; it falls into place or progresses logically from something specific that happens in class. When it comes to planning, my best ideas come to me while walking around the track on the athletic ground at school. I just can’t sit down and DO IT. Does this make me evil? Buddhism says that the misery we experience comes not from our experiences but our resistance to them. Amen. So here I am blogging instead of planning.

The spring weather is gone; it was a faux spring. Now we have cold, wet, clammy weather, but the cleanest, purest air I’ve breathed since being the mountains of western Sichuan. Thank goodness for small favors.

My childhood was marked by a love of the absurd, and, from my earliest memories, an overwhelming desire to get away. My first destinations were inside my own imagination, then I started expanding: I decided that I wanted to be French and live in Paris. I finally went there, said “OK, so I’ve seen it,” and moved on. My twin obsessions, books and travel, have for a long time now been directed to the “mysterious” Himalayan regions, including Tibet, Nepal, and parts of India such as Ladakh. I’m not alone in this; my current reading is about a woman who was possessed to undertake journeys both spiritual and physical into these regions, Alexandra David-Neel. She was also French. Mais oui.


 Alexandra David-Neel


Alexandra David-Neel, French by birth, English by education and American in temperament … led a youthful life as a student radical, had a career as an opera singer admired by Massenet, became a feminist journalist who flirted with Mussolini, tried conventional marriage in which she failed, journeyed to India, Tibet, and China, where she studied, traveled, and wrote despite famine, plague, and civil war, and where she was effortlessly at home.

The woman shed her past lives like a serpent does its old skin; in each life she buried the previous one, concealing its traces. In her very last incarnation, as the Eastern savant, she effaced her whole previous history. Why?

The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Neel, p. xii [Woodstock, NY: the Overlook Press, 1998]




This was a woman for whom the word “gutsy” might have been invented. Before I came to China I read her book Magic and Mystery in Tibet. In the past couple of years I have read and re-read My Journey to Lhasa. It’s a never-ending source of wonder to me how a 55-year-old woman, in the 1920s, could walk cross China and into Tibet, in the dead of winter, accompanied by her adpoted son, after having been turned back four times previously (Tibet was strictly closed to foreigners). She survived, and became world-famous as the first European woman to set foot in the holy city of Lhasa.

Her prose is straighforward and down-to-earth, but it’s her matter-of-fact, never-say-die sang-froid that always gets me. If you read my posts faithfully, you’ll remember the word phlegmatic (unemotional), but sang-froid adds a French twist, and literally means cold blood. It’s self-possession or imperturbability, especially under strain.

More than once I had considered the idea of crossing the Po country …. Many maintained that the Popas were cannibals. Others, more moderate in their opinions, left this question unsettled. But all united in affirming that anyone foreign to the Po tribes, who entered their country, was never seen again.


So I hesitated a little before risking this adventure, when the words of the general decided me – “Nobody has ever been there….” All right. I would see these ranges and these passes! Truly it would be “an interesting road to Lhasa”!

My Journey to Lhasa, p. 120 [Boston: Beacon Press, 1983]

She also could have a wicked sense of humor, and hated phonies:

Once, annoyed by the antics of the fakirs, she lay down on a vacant bed of nails. She explained to a passing British tourist that she needed a nap and was lucky to find a handy couch.

The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Neel, p. 59


I’ll mention one more person who seems to be possessed by travel, specifically in someone else’s footsteps. In the Footsteps of Joseph Rock is a photoblog showing how eastern Tibet looked in the 1920s and how the same places and people look now. Based on the explorations of Austrian-born botanist Dr. Joseph Rock, who lived in southwest China from the 1920s to 1949, it’s written by Michael, who lives in Sydney, Australia. It’s worth a look.  


Joseph Rock


The lighter side ofpossession

It’s one thing to be moved by strong feelings or even obsessions, quite another to be moved by supernatural powers.

 Of course, demonic possession is a natural for “shocker” films, lending itself to over-the-top performances and neat tricks like head-spinning and demon-channeling. My favorite performance in this category is Vanessa Redgrave’s in Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971).


    Since some of these films took themselves much too seriously, it was nice to see them lampooned from time to time in the favorite magazine of my youth, MAD ….    



(many thanks to Frankenstein’s Fun House on Flickr for the images – click on photo to visit)